The accidental president had to end our war in Vietnam. Gerald Ford had to end our war in Vietnam. Lyndon Johnson thought he could end it by winning it. He poured in more and more troops, starting in the autumn of 1965, until he had more than a half a million troops there, but we were not winning. Tet 1968 – we knew then this couldn’t be won. That August, Johnson announced he would not run again. He couldn’t defend his war that had turned stupid, but a proud man, he couldn’t back down either. So he left. And then Richard Nixon proposed peace with honor in Vietnam and bombed Hanoi and Cambodia and Laos and everywhere else in the region, got his useless Paris Peace Agreement, and bombed some more – and there was no peace with honor. And then he resigned in disgrace over an entirely different matter, saving him from having to explain what he was going to do next about the Vietnam mess. That left Gerald Ford in charge. No one had elected him. He was just next in line after the Nixon administration had to dump Spiro Agnew. Spiro was a crock. Gerald Ford wasn’t. He’d do.
And he ended that impossible war. He could. He had no constituency which had put him in power. He had no one to please. He had no one to offend. He owed no one anything. So he pulled the plug. Someone had to do it. No one had voted for him, or against him. He was an obscure congressman from Michigan who, somehow, had fallen into the presidency. That freed him. We left Vietnam.
And the world didn’t end. There were recriminations. How did we lose that thing? Why had we even tried that thing in the first place? But those recriminations eventually tuned into scholarly studies and then into book after book about “lessons learned” – which no one really learned. And then there was no more to say. It was over. Maybe it never happened.
But it did happen. And that’s how you end a stupid war. And perhaps President Biden learned from that, He just ended a useless war. The New York Times’ Michael Shear and David Sanger explain that this way:
President Biden vigorously defended his decision to end America’s 20-year war in Afghanistan on Thursday, asserting that the United States can no longer afford the human cost or strategic distraction of a conflict that he said had strayed far from its initial mission.
Speaking after the withdrawal of nearly all U.S. combat forces and as the Taliban surge across the country, Mr. Biden, often in blunt and defensive tones, spoke directly to critics of his order to bring an end to American participation in a conflict born from the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. He said the United States would formally end its military mission at the end of August.
Yes, he was blunt and defensive:
“Let me ask those who want us to stay: How many more?” Mr. Biden said in remarks in the East Room of the White House. “How many thousands more American daughters and sons are you willing to risk? And how long would you have them stay?”
Mr. Biden said he was not declaring “mission accomplished,” but he made clear that the future of the country – including the fate of the current government and concerns about the rights of women and girls – was no longer in the hands of the American military.
Biden was echoing John Kerry’s testimony before a Senate subcommittee in April, 1971 – “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam? How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”
Kerry was then a young Vietnam combat veteran with lots of medals. It was time to end this. Kerry would later become secretary of state. The argument is not new. The sunk costs in a mistake do not justify continuing that mistake in order that what had already been done would not be dishonored. Had the effort been in vain? Well, yes, it had been a mistake.
That’s the situation now. We did what we could. That will have to do:
Responding to questions from reporters about his decision to bring the war to a close, Mr. Biden grew testy as he rejected the likelihood that Americans would have to flee from Kabul as they did from Saigon in 1975. He insisted that the United States had done more than enough to empower the Afghan police and military to secure the future of their people.
But he conceded that their success would depend on whether they had the political will and the military might.
Pressed on whether the broader objectives of the two-decade effort had failed, Mr. Biden said, “The mission hasn’t failed – yet.”
That’s because wining a war was never the mission here. There are other matters:
The president insisted that the United States had not abandoned the thousands of Afghans who served as translators or provided other assistance to the American military. Responding to critics who argue his administration is not moving quickly enough to protect them, Mr. Biden said evacuations were underway and promised those Afghans that there was “a home for you in the United States, if you so choose. We will stand with you, just as you stood with us.”
John F. Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, said the military was looking at relocating Afghan interpreters and their families to U.S. territories, American military installations outside the United States, and in other countries outside of Afghanistan.
We will take care of these people. But the nonsense is over:
The war began two decades ago, the president argued, not to rebuild a distant nation but to prevent terror attacks like the one on Sept. 11, 2001, and to bring Osama bin Laden to justice. In essence, Mr. Biden said the longest war in United States history should have ended a decade ago, when Bin Laden was killed.
“We did not go to Afghanistan to nation-build,” he said. “And it’s the right and the responsibility of Afghan people alone to decide their future and how they want to run their country.”
But in an effort to provide limited reassurance to the Afghan government, he said the American mission to help defend the country would continue through Aug. 31, though most combat troops have already left, leaving a force of under 1,000 to defend the American embassy and the country’s airport.
And that’s it. And then howls of outrage rose all across the nation. Okay, no they didn’t:
At another time in the country’s history, Mr. Biden’s speech, and the final withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, might have roiled politics in the United States.
But at a moment when Americans are still fighting Covid, searching for a way out of 18 months of economic disruption, and struggling with racial tension and political division, there is almost no debate about the wisdom of the drawdown among Democrats and Republicans in Congress. Polls show that large numbers of Americans in both parties support leaving Afghanistan.
Biden’s timing was right this time. The nation did catch up with him:
For years, Mr. Biden, in wanting to withdraw from Afghanistan, was on the losing side of the debate. In 2009, while serving as vice president, he argued for a minimal force, only to be overruled as President Barack Obama ordered a surge of forces, then a rapid drawdown. But a dozen years later, as president, he has found his moment.
Progressives who once warmed to the idea of educating Afghan girls and women are now more interested in rebuilding America than Afghanistan. Conservatives have largely given up on former President George W. Bush’s pledge to spread democracy around the world and instead embraced former President Donald J. Trump’s “America First” opposition to what he saw as endless wars.
Everyone knows better now:
In his remarks on Thursday, and in his answers to questions, Mr. Biden delivered a presidential version of “I told you so” about the war.
“In 2011, NATO allies and partners agreed that we would end our combat mission in 2014,” he said. “In 2014, some argued one more year. So we kept fighting and kept taking casualties. In 2015 the same. And on and on.”
Now, he said, the experience of two decades of war reveals that “just one more year of fighting in Afghanistan is not a solution, but a recipe for being there indefinitely.”
America’s allies have accepted Mr. Biden’s decision. On Thursday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain announced the end of his country’s mission in Afghanistan, echoing Mr. Biden’s assessment that it was time for an end to the global military effort.
The president’s speech, which came just days after U.S. forces pulled out of Bagram Air Base, the operations center of the 20-year war, was the latest acknowledgment that the United States could not alter the country’s course.
“No nation has ever unified Afghanistan, no nation. Empires have gone there and not done it,” Mr. Biden said in a reference to the British occupation of the country in the 19th century and the Soviet effort to gain control three decades ago.
Both efforts failed, and Mr. Biden was, in essence, adding the United States to the list.
So that leaves only this:
In a nod to the ongoing instability, Mr. Biden said he intended for the United States to remain engaged in diplomatic efforts and to support the Afghan government with money and supplies even after all U.S. troops have left.
“We will continue to provide civilian and humanitarian assistance, including speaking out for the rights of women and girls,” he said. “I intend to maintain our diplomatic presence in Afghanistan.”
But since the United States officially began its withdrawal in May, Afghan troops have surrendered in the hundreds, forfeiting troves of U.S.-supplied equipment.
Okay, that might not work:
The Taliban seem intent on pushing for an outright military victory. And no matter what the accord negotiated 17 months ago said about power sharing, the Taliban now present themselves as a comparable governing body as they seize territory and revive their hardline Islamist rules.
Still, Mr. Biden said on Thursday that he did not believe a Taliban takeover of the government was inevitable and he bristled when a reporter asked if he trusted the Taliban.
“That’s a silly question,” he snapped. “Do I trust the Taliban? No. But I trust the capacity of the Afghan military, who is better trained, better equipped and more competent in terms of conducting war.”
But now it doesn’t matter who Biden trusts:
The administration is still working out plans to help maintain from afar the Afghan Air Force and the military’s Black Hawk helicopter fleet.
The Afghan Air Force, in particular, is heavily reliant on American and other foreign contractors for repairs, maintenance, fueling, training and other jobs necessary to keep it operating. About 200 of the original 18,000 Pentagon contractors remain in the country. Most contractors departed along with the American military, leaving a void that U.S. and Afghan leaders say could be crippling to Afghan forces as they face the Taliban alone.
There are hundreds of news items like that. Biden was being cheery about something we couldn’t fix, something no one could fix:
Many of the Taliban’s advances have faced little to no resistance in the wake of the United States’ withdrawal. Without close U.S. support, specifically airstrikes, Afghan forces have been unable to hold territory even in parts of the country far from the Taliban’s traditional heartland in the south.
“It was exactly like a dam breaking down,” said Abdul Aziz Beg, a member of the Badghis provincial council who was in the city when the assault began. Beg said the breach was triggered by the deputy police chief deserting his post. After he fled, the Afghan police staffing key checkpoints protecting Qala-e Nau abandoned their positions, he said, allowing Taliban fighters to easily enter the capital.
That’s horrible! We caused that!
Kevin Drum says that really doesn’t matter now. Biden did what he had to do:
Conservatives have used this – and similar scenes elsewhere – to criticize President Biden’s decision to withdraw completely from Afghanistan. This is pretty rich considering that it was one of their presidents who got us stuck there in the first place and another of their presidents who promised to withdraw but never had the guts to do it.
But put that aside:
Biden says he trusts the Afghan military, but this is obviously just happy talk. Like all of us, he knows perfectly well what’s going to happen next. After 20 years of American assistance the Afghan military is still so feeble that the Taliban can practically stroll into cities and take over. They will continue to do this, and by the end of the year they will control most or all of the country.
This is an enormous tragedy on many levels. But it’s plain that the Afghan government is fatally impotent and its military is inept. It’s equally plain that the United States has tried everything it reasonably could and has had no success in turning this around.
And that means that Biden did what had to be done:
It takes some guts to order the US withdrawal knowing that it means Afghanistan will fall to the Taliban within months. This is why no previous president has done it.
Kudos to Biden for recognizing reality and following through on this regardless of the political hit he’s bound to take for it. It’s the right thing to do.
And after all, someone had to be Gerald Ford. Do the right thing. Sometimes someone actually does that. The price they pay is high. But so what? Sometimes there’s no alternative.